Ronda Rousey is one bad-ass young lady.
She’s a UFC champion, a Strikeforce champion, has several gold medals and would indeed probably ‘manhandle’ boxer Floyd Mayweather should the two ever square off in the ring.
All that being said, there’s one title that Rousey can never hope to hold:
Toughest Girl Alive.
That distinction solely belongs to San Diego blues chanteuse Candye Kane and it appears that there are no contenders on the horizon to challenge for the belt.
Find that hard to believe?
Just look at the tale of the tape.
She’s given a hay-making right cross to all those that thought she would never be anything more than just a ‘sex worker who yodeled and played hillbilly music.’
She has pounded into the canvas all those that think that Kane and her band are faking the obviously-real and electric chemistry that they exude up on the bandstand.
She’s put the sleeper hold on all those that think her social activism and political views have no place in the pantheon of blues music.
And now, for nearly the past decade, she’s got her sleeves rolled up and is duking it out with the big C – cancer.
“I have to take everything one day at a time, but I’m very fortunate to be alive. I’ve been fighting it since 2007,” she recently said. “It’s been quite a long time, but that’s OK. I’m really lucky to still be alive at all. I’m grateful for that and I think my attitude of gratitude helps my overall situation. I’ve already had two incredible surgeries that were like 12 hours long, called the Whipple (named after surgeon Allen Whipple) and that surgery is pretty radical. They remove part of your stomach, part of your bile duct, part of your liver, part of your pancreas and some other parts and then they put you all back together again. You’re supposed to be good as new and in my case, I was very quick to recover and very quick to get back to work.”
Almost as integral a part of her battle as the therapy, treatments and the many prayers and well-wishes that Kane has received, has been the music that she plays.
“I’m healed every night by the music. Some nights I feel really rotten and then I get up on stage and I’m just healed. Laura (Chavez) is such an amazing guitar player and she really has the ability to be emotional in her playing and she moves me,” Kane said. “And the rest of my band is just phenomenal; I’m really lucky to be among this group of people (Chavez; bass player Bobby Abarca; drummer Oli Ontronen) and to be playing music with them. I’m also in the amazing and fortunate position of getting in front of 50 to 500 to 5,000 people at one time and asking them to send me prayers and white light and good vibes and I really get that from the crowd; you really can feel their energy and their spirit. That’s an important component of why I’m able to do this.”
Kane’s form of cancer – Neuroendocrine Pancreatic Cancer – is a rare one, striking just one out of 100,000 people.
“It’s not treatable by chemo, so I’m not under the same kind of treatment that typical cancer patients are. I’m still losing my hair, but that’s more because I have trouble digesting proteins and have trouble digesting certain kinds of nutrients, because my liver is compromised,” she said. “So because of that, it affects me in ways that maybe a typical cancer patient is not affected. I have had small doses of radiation and I’m trying to get this treatment that is very expensive – it’s about $10,000 a treatment – that’s called PRRT (Peptide Receptor Radionuclide Therapy). They give you an IV of radiation and the radiation goes to all the different parts in your body that are responsive to that kind of treatment. I had a test where they test all the cells in your body and all of the cells that are responsive light up, and in my case, the scan lit up like a Christmas tree; it was very, very responsive. So the treatment will be successful if I can get on this study … if I can round up the money to help pay for it. Luckily, I’ve had some very generous people come forward and say that they would pay for one treatment in its entirety, which really helps, because you need about seven or eight for it be successful.”
Those interested in helping out with Kane’s medical expenses, or who simply would like to offer thoughts and prayers, can go to www.candyekane.com to do so.
Somehow, through all the pain, all the uncertainty and the emotional roller coaster that she must be riding on, Kane has managed to continue to favor blues lovers all over the world with her fantastic art. Her songs are almost like mini novels and seem to cover the entire width and depth of the human condition with amazing ease. Her tunes move from happiness to sorrow; from light-hearted to tragic, sometimes within the framework of the very same song.
“My personal experiences influence my writing, for sure. How could it not? Really that’s all we have – what happens to us and what we endure and what we know as reality,” she said. “Songwriting is such a strange and surreal practice sometimes. Like for instance, sometimes I dream songs and I don’t know why. It’s like a third eye or something … some sort of mystical situation that happens when you’re dreaming and you tap into it. That’s happened to me several times, where I’ll dream the melody and even some of the words, so it’s not always a conscious effort. I do know that each song you write is like a baby and you love that baby and you want to take care of the baby and give the baby the best you can. For me, that’s very important. I love each song like a baby and some of them stay with me forever.”
Kane’s exceptional 2013 album – Coming Out Swingin’ (Vizztone) – is made up largely of songs that her and guitarist Laura Chavez crafted and she says that for her, having a co-writer is of the utmost importance.
“It is important, because basically I’m a poet and I write mostly prose. Then I have Laura, who is extremely musical, and she writes all of her melodies herself. She’s not as prolific in the words department and I’m not as polished in the music department,” she said. “I tend to write melodies that are very predictable and Laura is able to take those and turn them into something that’s not as predictable, with different kinds of changes. It’s great to have her, because you can’t always write with other people, even if you want to. It’s not about your ego, or their ego, it’s about let’s create the best song that we can. Songwriting is very important for me, because in the end, the legacy that I leave will be my songwriting. Nobody’s going to remember how big my boobs were, or what I did for work. They’re going to remember the songs, because they stand on their own and will still be there when I’m not.”
Chances are great that if a person were to look up the definition of ‘musical soulmate’ there would be a picture of Kane and Chavez right next to the description. That goes from the recording process to the bandstand to just hanging out when the band is off the road. The chemistry between the pair is authentic, electric and really something to behold, and in a way, is reminiscent of the inseparable bond that Buddy Guy and Junior Wells used to share.
Chavez was suggested to Kane by the great Sue Foley and the duo’s like-mindedness was there from the very outset.
“I picked her up at the airport (when Chavez first joined the band) and we were both wearing shirts with skeletons on them and we both ordered the same thing in the restaurant and the same drink and the same salad,” Kane said. “When we started talking, we realized that we both like Disneyland and are Tim Burton fans and that we both love haunted houses and that our favorite holiday was Halloween. Laura’s background is Portuguese and Mexican and she has some very interesting Latin roots, so that was also sympathetic with mine. Although I’m not either of those nationalities, I grew up in East LA in a very Latino-influenced place, so I knew about things like that. We bonded based on funny little surface things, but you’d be surprised how those surface things affect you once you’re on the road with somebody.”
Turns out that Chavez’s temperament is also right up Kane’s alley.
“She’s the only person that I’ve spent so much time with that I don’t hate. Anyone that can put up with me for more than a year deserves some kind of medal,” she laughed. “And I think she doesn’t hate me, either. It’s a deep relationship on many levels. She’s my best friend and I’ve never had a friendship that was this close or this intense. Laura is so smart and she’s learned everything about my illness. She was Pre-Med anyway and part of her wants to be a doctor and throw the whole music thing away and just concentrate on medicine. She’s smart enough to do so, but she’s also a natural at the guitar and she loves to travel and see different places and she loves the audiences, so I think she’s torn between what she wants to do.”
At one time, Chavez was content to just stay in the shadows on the fringes of the stage when she played guitar, but thanks to some work on Kane’s part, that’s changing.
“There was a time in the very beginning when Laura would shy away from the spotlight. She’d pull her hat down over her eyes and just play. She’s not super-extroverted in any way and part of her still wants to do that. But she’s not shying away from the spotlight anymore and I take some credit for that,” said Kane. “I used to literally get behind her with my body and push her up to the spotlight. That worked and now she goes up there on her own and I’m proud of that. She’s just more comfortable now and she realizes that she has her own wonderful fans who love her and her guitar playing. She wants to be known as a guitar player and not as a female guitar player. She’s my secret weapon. There’s not many guitar players that are as spontaneous or emotional as Laura is. She lets it all fly when she’s playing … she just wails.”
Living your life day-to-day is one thing, but to see a bunch of those days re-created right before your very eyes has to be another thing all by itself. Kane had that very surreal experience when a stage production was made out of memoirs that she had written about life called, fittingly, Toughest Girl Alive.
“It was weird at times … seeing yourself on stage like that is weird,” she said.
The whole project sprang to life when one of Kane’s friends got a hold of the manuscript (which she still has plans to add to and eventual publish) for her memoirs.
“The artistic director of the San Diego Ballet – Javier Velasco – is the one who adapted my book to the stage. He’s a huge fan and he knows my entire catalog. He knew it so well that he was able to take scenes from the book and then put in the right song to match the scene, which was amazing,” she said. “I was flattered. It was basically a one-woman show, except for an actress (Bethany Slomka) that played the roles of the females in my life – like my mother and grand-mother – and then there was an actor (Rob Kirk) that played the role of all the males – like my father and managers.”
Little did Kane know at that particular time just how grueling a task putting on a stage production could be.
“I had no idea. I not only had to sing the songs, but I had to remember hours of dialogue and be able to switch hats and be myself at different stages of my life,” she said. “It was hard. Even though the actual show may be only two hours long with an intermission, it still takes a lot to get ready for those couple of hours. But remembering the dialogue was the hardest part. As a kid, I always wanted to be an actress and the things that I used to audition for back then was musical theater, things like Oklahoma or The King And I … stuff like that.””
The production did not shy away one bit from touching on all aspects of Kane’s colorful – and often controversial – life. And that’s precisely the way she wanted it.
“My band was a part of the production; they were on stage and would play snippets of the songs. At that time, my son Evan was the drummer in the band and he was uncomfortable with some of the nudity and some of the things that had happened (in Kane’s life). There was no live nudity in the show, but there were some slides (shown on stage) from some parts of my life that were provocative,” she said. “He was uncomfortable with some of that and in fact, he tried to rewrite the script. But we ended up not changing anything. He said, ‘Look, you’ve worked so hard to be accepted as a songwriter and musician, why would you want to let there be these topless pictures of you?’ And I said, ‘Because it’s part of the story; it’s part of who I am. I used this part of my career – the sexuality and sexual part of me – to subsidize my musical career. It’s how I was able to get off welfare and survive financially as a teenage mother. That allowed me to hire the best musicians when I would come home from a stripping tour. That set a standard of who played on my records and on my live shows.’ So I think that helped him be a little more tolerant of the whole thing.”
Toughest Girl Alive was awarded the Critic’s Choice Award from the San Diego Critics Theater Guild in 2011. That same year, Kane was nominated for two Blues Music Awards (BMAs) – the BB King Entertainer of the Year, along with Best Contemporary Blues Female.
Regardless of how many awards she wins, or how many nominations she garners for her musical talents, something that a segment of the blues-loving population can’t seem to let go of is Kane’s sexuality. She’s openly identified herself as being bisexual and has taken part in Gay Pride parades and activities. As we know from visiting with harpist Jason Ricci (Blues Blast – May 2, 2015 issue), that can lead to some ruffled feathers.
“I agree with Jason and part of that is my friendship with Earl Thomas (openly-gay, San Diego-based bluesman). I’m friends with Jason, but I’m closer to Earl because I see him a lot more. I do think that Jason’s right that women have it easier (as far as their acceptance of being gay or bisexual) in the sense that women kissing can be a turn-on for heterosexual guys,” she said. “You can just look at television and movies and what appeared first? It was always women with full-body and full-frontal nudity that was aired first. It was the same for magazines and any kind of printed material … it was always women that were featured first, because it’s more mainstream. It’s a turn-on for heterosexual men, whereas it’s not so much of a turn-on for them when they see two guys doing it. Somebody once said, ‘I’d much rather see two smooth asses in the bed than two hairy asses in the bed.’ That was one crude way of putting it, but it’s true. Most straight men can handle two or however many women, but they can’t handle the male part of it.”
According to Kane, the way that the gay lifestyle is often sensationalized by media sources really doesn’t help, nor does it offer up much of an actual account of it, either.
“Unfortunately, the media always likes to play up the freaky guy that’s dressed up like a nun at the Gay Pride parade. Or the guy dancing it up at the disco after the Gay Pride parade in their Mardi Gras beads and their thong,” she said. “It’s the more wild and freakish part of gay life that they feature, instead of the more mainstream parts of gay life that are far more prevalent and exists way more than the wildness does.”
All the recent attention and media firestorm surrounding Rowan County (Kentucky) Clerk Kim Davis, who has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples – despite a court order to do so – may actually help the world see gays in a more normal light, says Kane.
“For maybe the first time, you get to see what these normal couples look like, who are wanting to go in and get married. You see an example of gay America that’s a little more realistic than what we’ve been shown before,” she said. “I don’t she (Davis) means to be a champion for gay issues, but I think she’s more of a champion for gay rights than she even knows. This controversy is linked with gay couples and they’re showing couples who all they want to do is just get married. They’re not there to pick up on other people; they’re not there to dance the night away in their thong; they’re there because they love each other and are in a committed relationship. The majority of the people in this country who identify as gay are like those people. They have day jobs and are committed to their partners. I’ve always wondered why it becomes this weird religious, moral issue, because the Jesus I know was all about accepting everyone, no matter who they were.”
Kane would also like to see a bit more openness and diversity when it comes to the rosters at a lot of blues festivals, selection-wise.
“If you’ll notice, at a lot of these festivals, the artists are almost 80-percent male and 20-percent female. And the females that are represented are often – no offense to my friends, who I have many that are part of this group – women who look great in a short skirt and maybe it’s more about that than the music,” Kane said. “It’s like style over substance sometimes. That’s OK and that’s valid, because there’s room for everyone in my opinion. But instead of seeing eight bands with harmonicas and guys with sunglasses and hats, how about seeing one of those bands and the rest being more unusual … weird and different and unique? That’s what I’d like to see. That’s how it was on the LA scene when I was coming up. On one stage back then you could see The Circle Jerks, X, Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs, Dwight Yoakam and me.”
All the ups-and-downs – along with the side-to-sides – that she’s faced throughout her life have undoubtedly resulted in turning Candye Kane into one determined woman, blessed with steely willpower and the notion to never compromise or to never give in. That goes for her musical beliefs, her social beliefs and maybe most important of all – her firm belief that she’s not yet done living.
“You have to really want to live – and it’s not so much just wanting to live, because obviously most of us want to live – and you have to really be willing to fight and to believe that you’re going to get better,” she said. “You can’t just wish it; you really have to visualize it and see yourself getting better. I try to imagine what it will be like when all this is over and I’m better … when I’m thinner and healthier than before and standing in front of a crowd of 5,000 that are applauding. That’s what I envision for myself, that’s what I focus on, in addition to getting well.”
Photos by Marilyn Stringer © 2015
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist, author and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.